Prior to the start of this season, many predicted that Wolves would, at best, finish mid-table. This season was supposed to be one of consolidation for the newly promoted side as they aimed to break their cycle of relegation and promotion. Wolves have the unfortunate reputation of being a “yo-yo club.”
A club stuck in soccer purgatory.
Historically, Wolves have been too good for the Championship, but have not been good enough to consistently remain in the Premier League. However, it is my prediction that Wolves have broken this cycle and the West-Midlands club will play in England’s top division for many years to come. In this week’s post, we shall be analyzing all the factors behind Wolves’ rise back to relevancy.
Wolves are 7th in the league, but have no real chance of moving up into 6th position. The top 6 in England are considered amongst the elite sides of Europe and Wolves are just a tier below them. However, Wolves are certainly the best side outside of the top 6. Within the space of two weeks, Wolves have derailed Manchester United’s season. The West-Midlands side beat United in the quarter-finals of the F.A cup and dealt a hammer blow to United’s top four aspirations by defeating them 2-1 at home. In both games, Wolves were the better side and I have been so impressed with how the West-Midlands side have been playing this season.
Wolves are owned by the conglomerate and investment company, Fosun International. The Chinese investment group purchased Wolves for $60 million dollars in the summer of 2016. Wolves’ chairman, Jeff Shi, said he was inspired by Manchester City’s ascension to the top of English soccer and believes that Wolves can follow a similar trajectory to the Manchester club. Shin believes that Wolves can become one of the elite sides in European soccer.
The owners have demonstrated their ambitions and have not been shy when it comes to spending money on new players. When they were in the Championship, Wolves signed players that were once regulars in the Champions League. The signing of Ruben Neves shows the financial power that Wolves now possess. Neves was courted by Europe’s elite sides and many people were shocked when he decided to move to England’s second division. Wolves spent $27 million-dollars on the talented midfielder which represented an astronomical transfer fee for a Championship side. Championship managers criticized the club as they felt that Wolves were, essentially, financially doping their way to the Premier League.
Wolves’ ownership has also drawn criticism for their close relationship with “super-agent” Jorge Mendes. The Portuguese soccer agent represents some of the world’s biggest stars, such as Cristiano Ronaldo, and his association with Wolves has seen many of his clients join the club. Mendes’ ties to the club are criticized as many rival managers feel that he is directing his clients to the West-Midlands club. Nuno Esprito Santo, the club’s manager, and marquee players such as Ruben Neves, Rui Patricio, Raul Jimenez and Joao Moutinho are all Mendes’ clients.
The issue that people have with Mendes’ involvement at Wolves stems from the fact that Wolves’ owners have shares in Mendes’ agency; GestiFute. Some have suggested that this relationship gives Wolves the advantage of signing players that are represented by Mendes. Leeds owner and chairman, Andrea Radrizzani, has claimed that the relationship is “unfair and illegal.” However, an investigation by the English F.A. found no irregularities in Mendes’ involvement with the club. The club have been robust in the defense of their recruitment practices as Managing Director Laurie Dalrymple said: “we are completely comfortable; in the way we recruit players, the strategy we deploy to do that and the system we build around how we finance it.”
Wolves have been incredibly intelligent when it has come to their recruitment. Instead of making the mistakes of signing household names they have managed to acquire exciting young talents, such as Neves and Jota, and have also signed experienced professionals; such as Moutinho and Boly. This combination of youth and experience has improved Wolves’ squad greatly.
The first 12 months under Shi’s stewardship were not successful. The problem with businessmen running soccer clubs is that they often lack the relevant experience needed to form a successful side. They may have the business acumen required to run a modern soccer club, but they often lack the knowledge of soccer which is needed to guide the playing side of the team. There was a managerial merry-go-round before the club appointed Nuno Espirito Santo and he was the club’s 7th managerial appointment since 2012.
Admittedly, most of these did not take place under Shi, but it highlights the culture that was once at the club. A high turnover of managers inhibits the club’s ability to implement a long-term plan for improvement. The constant changing of mangers meant that Wolves were stagnating. There was no basis from which the club could progress. Wolves needed stability and in Nuno the club has found their stabilizing force.
Hiring Nuno was a coup for the West-Midlands side as he joined the club after managing Valencia. Wolves were in the Championship when Nuno arrived and his appointment was not received well within England. Many Wolves fans questioned the appointment of Nuno as he had no experience of English soccer.
I bet those dissenters feel silly now.
NUNO’S PLAYING PHILOSOPHY
Nuno’s philosophy stems from his long-playing career. He spent the entirety of his career as a backup goalkeeper and owes a lot of his playing philosophy to Jose Mourinho. Nuno was the backup goalkeeper when Mourinho led FC Porto to a remarkable Champions League title and has spoken openly about his admiration for the “special one.” The type of soccer that Mourinho favors is a counter-attacking style of play and this is also what Nuno prefers.
Nuno favors the 5-3-2 formation as it enables his playing philosophy to take place on the pitch. Wolves do not aim to dominate the game with possession but are set-up to counter-attack with blistering pace.
When defending, Wolves do not press within the opposition’s half. They adopt a pressing style which is conservative and takes place within their own half. By inviting pressure onto themselves, Wolves hope that the opposition will lose their defensive shape by sending too many players into the attack. Wolves aim to counter-attack with pace and utilize the spaces that have been left behind by the opposition. If Wolves were a basketball team, you would say that they are a team that aims to score in transition.
This style of play means that Wolves’ full-backs and strikers must be exceptionally fast so they can take advantage of counter-attacking opportunities. They must be technically proficient on the ball, as counter-attacks are most devastating when the opposition does not have enough time to regain their defensive shape. Anything that slows down the counter-attack, such as poor passes and bad touches, must be avoided.
Nuno’s system means that his midfielders must be fantastic passers of the ball. Counter-attacking opportunities are lost in the blink of an eye, so Nuno’s midfielders must be able to move the ball, vertically up the pitch, with pace. By transitioning the ball quickly, Nuno’s midfielders play a key role in generating the momentum of his side’s counter-attacks.
HOW THE FORMATION WORKS: DEFENSE
This is Wolves’ usual defensive shape
The whole team drops back into their own half of the pitch and this allows Wolves to maximize the number of players they have in defensive areas. This congests Wolves’ half of the pitch meaning that Nuno’s system limits the space in which the opposition can play within. As Wolves play a counter-attacking style of soccer, they must invite pressure onto themselves in order to create the spaces for their own attacks.
HOW THE FORMATION WORKS: OFFENSE
When counterattacking, this is the shape that Wolves typically find themselves in
Wolves’ full-backs are incredibly important to their attacking style. The full-backs sprint forward to stretch the defense of the opposition; which creates space for the strikers to work within. Nuno allows Moutinho and Dendoncker to join the attack, but insists that Neves remains fixed in his position. From this position, Neves acts as a backwards passing option, if no vertical passes are open. Also, Neves’ positioning ensures that there are always 4 Wolves players that are able to defend against counter-attacks.
Nuno has drilled his side so well that they are able to transition between these two formations with ease. As there is no real positional flexibility, every player knows what is required of them.
KEY PLAYERS THIS SEASON
The following players have been particularly important for Wolves this season
WILLY BOLY: CENTRE-BACK
The Frenchman arrived from FC Porto when Wolves were in the Championship and the commanding centre-back has thrived within the Premier League. His performances this season has seen him tipped for a move to one of the Premier League’s top 6 clubs.
Boly has been a monster at the back for Wolves this season and has dominated many of the leagues’ most potent strikers. He averages 2.3 tackles per game, 2 interceptions per game, 1 block per game and a staggering 4.8 clearances per game. Standing at 6 foot 5 inches, the towering centre-back is a formidable defender and has become a fan favorite.
RUBEN NEVES: CENTRAL-DEFENSIVE-MIDFIELDER
The talented youngster made my 2018/2019 Premiere League team of the season, which can be found by clicking here, and he is integral to the way in which Wolves play. Operating as a fixed central-defensive-midfielder, Neves protects the back-line whilst also linking the defense with the offense.
Neves’ defensive output has been fantastic this season as he averages 2 tackles per game, 2.2 interceptions per game and 1.2 clearances per game. The Portuguese international is crucial to Wolves’ defensive efforts and he has shown real maturity in his defensive work this season. Neves’ importance to the side has been highlighted above and without him, Wolves would have really struggled this season.
RAUL JIMENEZ: STRIKER
In Jimenez, Wolves have a striker that has been scoring goals and finishing his chances with great efficiency. The Mexican international is perfect for Nuno’s system, as he is great on the ball and has the agility needed to participate in devastating counter-attacks.
Offensively, Jimenez averages 2.8 shots per game, 1.2 key passes per game and 0.9 dribbles per game. With his 16 goals and 7 assists, the Mexican has become a fan favorite at the West-Midlands club. Without his key contributions, Wolves would be a mid-table club, at best.
Jimenez is currently on loan from Benfica and, due to his performances this season, has been linked with a transfer to various clubs across Europe. According to reports, Wolves have first-refusal of the Mexican international and are believed to be preparing a club record $40 million-dollar deal for the striker.
Wolves are on the up
The West-Midlands club find themselves in an incredible position right now and deserve all the plaudits they are receiving. They have a great manager, incredible squad and are clearly on the rise. Wolves’ ownership group want to transform the club into an elite side and have made all the right decisions so far. From revolutionizing their recruitment strategies to changing the structure of their club; Wolves’ ownership group are on the right path to achieving their goals.
Wolves will remain a tier below the Premier League’s top 6 for the foreseeable future. However, if they continue progressing in the way they have; who knows where this incredible journey could end up.
Any suggestions, questions or comments then do not hesitate to get in touch! Remember, if you have any requests for future articles then you all you have to do is ask! Whether it’s about a manager’s tactical philosophy or an in-depth analysis about a specific player, if it is soccer related; I will look into it!